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Ryder Cup: Recent U.S. struggles; preview for 2021

The game of golf has always been a game of stoicism, with the majority of players staying calm and keeping their emotions in check throughout each round. Even in the four majors, most golfers will keep a solid poker face. The Ryder Cup, however, is a different story.  In the Ryder Cup, you aren’t just playing for yourself. You’re playing for your teammates, your captain, and of course, you’re playing for your country (or continent, in Europe’s case). Add those together and you’ll get Rory McIlroy and Patrick Reed-style reactions when they kept trading birdies during the final day of the 2016 Ryder Cup.

European Dominance

Ever since Europe and the United States began their Ryder Cup tradition and rivalry back in 1979, the event has given us countless memorable moments. That said, it quite frankly hasn’t been much of a rivalry over the last two decades. Europe has won 7 of the last 9 Ryder Cups dating back to 2002 and has been nothing short of dominant. If you are unfamiliar with professional golf, you may look at that and assume Europe has had better, more talented golfers. This is far from the truth. The top of the official world golf rankings is constantly crowded with red, white, and blue flags. As we sit right now, there are 9 American golfers in the top-11 of the World Golf Rankings.

From the 2000s with Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Stewart Cink, and Jim Furyk, to the 2010s with Dustin Johnson, Zach Johnson, Rickie Fowler, Matt Kuchar, and Bubba Watson, to the late 2010’s and early 2020s with the guys you see in the rankings above, talent on the American side has always been at the forefront. Unfortunately, that hasn’t translated to Ryder Cup victories.

With the 2021 Ryder Cup approaching, let’s dig into why the United States has struggled so mightily these last 20 years.

Home “Course” Advantage

While the Europeans have been able to play well despite hostile American crowds, the U.S. simply hasn’t done the same when playing overseas. In fact, the last time the United States won a Ryder Cup in Europe was 1993, a team that included Hall of Famers Fred Couples, Payne Stewart, Davis Love III, and captain Tom Watson.

In contrast, Europe has gone 3-3 in the last six Ryder Cups on American soil. Some may make the assumption that the U.S. teams haven’t handled the pressure on the road as well as Europe has. While some of this may be true, it certainly isn’t the number one reason. When asked about Europe’s success at home, Paul Azinger, who was part of that 1993 U.S. team, said: “They take advantage of the home field. They can somehow read into how they can neutralize our strengths as a 12-man team. Even back then, they narrowed fairways. And they go to courses they play all the time. I think that helps them.”

In other words, they have a knack for manipulating the course and course setup to give them an advantage over the U.S. A prime example of this is Europe choosing to play on links golf courses. Links courses are found all over Europe and require a completely different style of golf than what you would typically see at a PGA Tour event in the states. The last six Ryder Cups in the U.S., on the other hand, have been played at courses that have hosted major championships. These are courses that the Europeans are familiar with and have played multiple times on big stages.

Chemistry

The chemistry on the U.S. side certainly hasn’t been bad. In fact, I think it’s been really good for the most part. That said, there’s something about the chemistry of the European teams in recent years that is simply unmatched. The fist pumps of Ian Poulter and Sergio Garcia. The “I want all the smoke” attitude of Justin Rose. The smart, steady play of guys like Lee Westwood, Francesco Molinari, and Graeme McDowell. And of course the raw talent and the classic no-hat look from Rory McIlroy.

I was born in 1998 and didn’t really get into the Ryder Cup until the late 2000s and early 2020s. From the handful of Ryder Cups that I’ve seen, however, it always feels like the Europeans are able to come together as a unit and feed off one another at a higher level than the United States. When the talent level is about even, that can end up being the difference between celebration and defeat.

Clutch Play

Accurate drives, timely approach shots, and clutch putts are things we’ve seen in abundance from the Europeans throughout this stretch. Europe won back to back Ryder Cups (2010 and 2012) by the thinnest of margins, 14.5-13.5. For those that may not understand the scoring, every match won is worth one point, and a tie is worth half a point. If a team reaches 14.5 points, it’s over, so Europe won right on the number in consecutive Cups.

In 2010, USA was up two full points heading into the final day. This was quickly erased, as Europe racked up 5.5 out of a possible 6 points, led by Luke Donald and Lee Westwood’s 6 and 5 win over Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker. The U.S. made one final push, winning 7 of the 12 singles matches. Ultimately, though, it wasn’t enough, and the U.S. fell just short as Graeme McDowell’s 3 and 1 win over Hunter Mahan clinched the win for the Europeans.

2012 is the year that brings back painful memories for many U.S. golf fans, including myself. The Americans held a 10-6 lead heading into what many believed would be a cakewalk on the final day. Europe had other plans, tallying 8.5 out of 12 possible points on Sunday to complete the largest road comeback in Ryder Cup history. The comeback later became known as the “Miracle at Medinah.”

Preview for the 2021 Ryder Cup

Fortunately for the United States, they have a chance to start the 2020s with a win in a few weeks. With the number of young, talented American golfers emerging, I see the U.S. turning the tide and winning three or four Ryder Cups in the 2020’s. As we currently sit, the six automatic qualifiers for team USA are Collin Morikawa, Dustin Johnson, Patrick Cantlay, Bryson DeChambeau, Brooks Koepka, and Justin Thomas. The remaining six players will be decided by captain Steve Stricker. These could include guys like Jordan Spieth, Xander Schauffele, Tony Finau, Patrick Reed, Daniel Berger, Harris English, or Scottie Scheffler. Those are a lot of big names, but that’s not something the United States has lacked the last two decades.

On the European side, only a couple names will remain from the 2010’s dynasty that seemed nearly unbeatable. Jon Rahm and Rory McIlroy will headline the roster, but look out for non-household names like Tyrell Hatton, Tommy Fleetwood, Paul Casey, and rising star Viktor Hovland.

The talent will certainly lean in the United States’ favor, and as long as Koepka and DeChambeau don’t kill each other, I like the U.S. to win big in a few weeks. History tells us, however, that talent alone does not win Ryder Cups.

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